Holiday clashes are one of the biggest causes of conflict between colleagues at any time of year, but Christmas can be particularly tricky. Parents want to finish when school breaks up, people whose families live at the other end of the country want to avoid travelling at peak times, and hardly anyone wants to work on Christmas Eve. Then there’s the ‘dead’ period between Christmas and New Year when it really doesn’t seem worth coming into work as nothing much is happening anyway.

Of course, it would be lovely if we could all don our Santa hats the day before Christmas Eve and head off in high festive spirits, not to return until the New Year. But the reality is that many businesses need to keep the wheels turning over the holiday period – and indeed for some, it may be their busiest time of the year.

So, what’s the best way to manage leave requests so that everyone is happy while also ensuring the needs of the business are met?

Be clear about business arrangements

Make sure everyone is clear about exactly when and how the business will be operating over the Christmas period. Are you going to finish early on Christmas Eve, or will everyone be expected to work a full day? Will it be business as usual over the in-between period or just a skeleton service? If you are closing down completely over Christmas and New Year, are these being given as additional holiday days over people’s usual entitlement or will they be expected to take them out of their annual leave? If everyone knows the score, there is less potential for confusion or bad feelings.

Check the rules

Refusing holiday requests, changing leave that has already been approved, or insisting employees take holiday at a time that suits your organisation, can easily create tension and would only paint you and the organisation in a negative light. Of course, good communication upfront and handling requests sensitively at the time can help avoid potential issues. But, as the HR professional, you must ensure your organisation follow the rules. For example, if your business decides to close over Christmas and need your employees to take time off, you should tell them at least twice as many days in advance the number of days you want them to take off. The same applies if you want employees to use up any remaining holiday entitlement as part of their notice period.

Calculate time-off entitlements

In the run-up to Christmas, it’s even more critical than usual that you know how much paid time off employees have accrued and may need to use up before the end of your holiday year. If departments are already short-staffed, even losing one extra pair of hands because they have to take holiday for statutory reasons, or because you operate a ‘use it or lose it’ policy, won’t go down well with senior management, or those who have to take on extra work to cover for absent colleagues.

Encourage people to plan early

Equipped with up-to-date information about outstanding leave entitlements, it’s much easier to ensure that proper plans are in place. If you have minimum staffing levels or specific colleagues who can’t be off at the same time, make sure everyone is aware of that. Use team meetings to remind people of the process for booking annual leave – and if some employees have way too much leave in the bank, you can encourage them not to leave their remaining holiday entitlement to the eleventh hour. If people are clear about the policy and the process, they are less likely to get upset if they can’t take their holiday when they want to.

Give a clear reason for refusals

If you have to turn a holiday request down, make sure you can explain your reasoning clearly. Most people will understand that not everyone can take time off simultaneously and that someone has to be there to answer the phone, deliver the goods or deal with any issues that may arise. Make sure people can see that you understand it’s important for them to have time with their family and friends over the holiday and that you have done your best to accommodate their needs. Be open to any suggestions they might make about how work could be juggled or covered – could someone be ‘on-call’ over the holiday period, for example, without actually coming into the office? Even if you have to say no in the end, they will appreciate the fact you have tried to help.

Deal with disputes calmly

If disputes do arise, make sure you are dealing with them fairly and treating all employees the same. Refer employees back to your company policy or point them at websites like ACAS or Citizens Advice that explain the rules. It’s very easy for resentment to creep in if people feel you are showing favouritism to a particular employee or if they perceive that colleagues with children are being given priority over others. Don’t leave staff to fight it out between themselves over holiday clashes. This will only lead to tension and bad feeling in the team – and as the manager, you need to make the final decision.

Let technology take the strain

Making sure you have enough people around to cover the workload during the holiday period can be a nightmare, particularly if you have clashing requests or people taking odd days here and there in the run-up to Christmas. The latest HR software systems can help you create order from the chaos.

For example, a good system can automatically calculate holiday entitlements based on working time patterns, local calendars, legislations and your company rules, saving you hours and ensuring holiday allowances are always up to date. They allow employees to check entitlements and request time off online, whenever they want – from a PC, tablet or mobile phone. Approving managers benefit from online team calendars, and confirm or deny requests quickly, cutting down on unnecessary paperwork and ensuring people get a quick answer to their application to take time off.

Follow these best practices to prepare you for this coming holiday rush and managing leave requests will be a breeze.

First published on 18 November 2015

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.